Security alert

The US government’s recent defence review shows new levels of attention being given to climate change. Xie Yanmei talks to two experts about the implications.

The United States’ Department of Defense has started studying the implications of climate change for national security and military planning. Its Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), released in early February, concludes that climate change may exacerbate poverty, food and water scarcity, the spread of disease and mass migration and “may act as an accelerant of instability or conflict”. It says that extreme-weather events may place a further burden on the US military to provide disaster response around the globe. The report also outlines an intensifying focus from the armed forces on cutting fuel consumption and finding alternative energy sources.

In their working paper, “Promoting the Dialogue: Climate Change and the Quadrennial Defense Review”, Christine Parthermore and Will Rogers of the Center for a New American Security argue that the QDR is the first step towards a military strategic roadmap for operating in a world with a changing climate.

Xie Yanmei: Can you talk briefly about the process of the QDR?

Christine Parthemore: It’s a report that the Department of Defense is legally required to conduct every four years. They talk to all the experts inside the department and work with academics and other experts outside the government. They project what future needs the department is going to have and think through the problems the department might confront over the next four years and into the future.

XY: What role does it play in the decision-making process both for the Department of Defense and for Congress?

CP: It lays out the general framework and provides a direction for more specific decisions. It sets out a vision for how to consider issues like climate change, nuclear proliferation and US missile-defense posture. So it is the starting point for building up more detailed plans and strategies.

XY: Specifically, how does the review suggest climate change will impact US security and how does it see the US military adapting to a changing climate?

CP: It says that climate change is going to combine with other trends, such as economic and political trends, around the world. It doesn’t claim to know what future threats might come out of it or where instability is most likely to happen, but it does say that, in the near term, climate-change effects such as sea-level rise or drought could impact some of the areas where the military has large installations.

XY: Does the review outline specific strategic changes that the US military will make?

CP: No, it tends not to do that. There are other tools to mark changes in direction, like the budget. The QDR sets a baseline vision in line with the president’s thinking and tends not to be too prescriptive.

XY: In your paper, you talk about the institutional changes the Department of Defense has had to make in order to study the implications of climate change. Can you explain?

Will Rogers: I think one of the unintended and positive consequences is the nascent intellectual infrastructure that has developed within the department to look at issues related to climate change. It has become the springboard for communicating to the science community what kind of information they are going to need and, specifically, what kind of data the national-security community finds useful.

XY: How likely is it that the message of the QDR will change the global position of the United States? Will there be more competition between the US and China for energy, for example? Will it prompt more cooperation between the two countries for solving global crises related to climate change?

WR: I think it’s interesting to look at what the QDR says about using climate change as a touch point for possible cooperation with the Chinese military and other military around the world. The Department of Defense has a history of using environmental cooperation to build military relations with other countries. I think climate change offers potential opportunities to further this type of engagement.

XY: In your working paper, you mention that the Department of Defense sees cutting greenhouse-gas emissions as part of its mission. What has it been doing to reduce its carbon footprint and has the QDR outlined further steps for this goal?

WR: The department has been looking at what it can do with its domestic installations in terms of increasing energy conservation and efficiency to reduce its fuel consumption and carbon footprint. At the service level, the air force and navy have been looking at different technological developments and different types of fuel that they can use to shore up energy security and, to some degree, reduce their carbon footprint.

XY: The US military has a history of spearheading advanced technologies, which are later transferred to the civilian sector. Do you see this happening with clean-fuel development?

CP: Yes, I think the interest in doing so is increasing. The air force has been testing alternative fuels. The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency [the research–and-development arm of the Department of Defense], is looking at algae-based biofuel. They are really good at creating new things that meet needs unique to their missions. But energy is ubiquitous. It goes far, far beyond the Department of Defense.

XY: President Barack Obama is very interested in addressing the problem of climate change. But let’s say the next president is a climate-change sceptic. Will that change how the Department of Defense views climate change?

CP: The Department of Defense writ large serves at the pleasure of the president, whoever that president is. Beyond that, though, it is made up of thousands and thousands of individuals. You find people with all kinds of opinions about what the military’s role should be and how the department should move forward on this. That’s why it is important to look at documents like the QDR, which reflects broad, general, internal thinking by the leaders of the department as well as the president’s priorities.

XY: What significance do you think the climate-change aspect of the QDR will have for the US military?

WR: I think integrating climate change into the QDR is only really the first step. Moving forward, we might see these issues have a bigger presence in other strategy documents in the department and at service level.

CP: You build security by thinking ahead about issues that are even remotely likely to become a security challenge in the future. This is one of the issues that require a lot of thinking ahead and a lot of that work is yet to be done. The QDR signals that effort is starting in earnest. And it means we have a better prospect of building security on related issues.

Xie Yanmei is a Beijing-based freelance reporter.

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